Concept of Ideal types by Max Weber

Concept of Ideal types was first developed by Max Weber. He wrote about ideal types in his writing “Objectivity in the Social Sciences and Social Policy” in 1905. He was a philosopher,  sociologist and political economist. His works include theory  of social action theory  of social action, Protestant  Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism and concept of ideal types. Weber used ideal type as a methodological tool. He used it to describe the comparative features of different societies by outlining the distinct social characteristics. According to New Webster’s Dictionary ‘ideal’ is a conception or a standard of something in its highest perfection. It refers to a mental image or conception rather than a material object. Or in other words it is a model.

In concept of ideal types, the term ‘type’ means a kind, class or a group as distinguished by a particular character. Thus, we may conceptualize ideal type as kind, category, class or a group with particular characteristics which seems to be the best example of it. Weber used ideal type as a methodological tool to understand and analyze social reality. He was particularly concerned with Objectivity in social science. So he used ideal types as a methodological tool that looks at reality objectively. It scrutinises, classifies, defines social reality without subjective bias. Ideal types does not deal with values. They are concepts formulated on the basis of facts collected carefully and analytically for empirical research.

Construction of Ideal types

Ideal types are combination of number of elements. They are rarely or never discovered in specific form. For construction of ideal types, sociologist select a number of traits from the whole. Which is otherwise confusing and obscure  to constitute an intelligible entity. They do not consider the common or average characteristics.  But focus on the typical and essential characteristics.

It should be noted that Ideal types are constructed from facts existing in reality.  They do not describe or represent the total reality.  They are of pure types in logical terms.

Characteristics of Ideal types

Important characteristics of ideal types are as follows:

1. They are mental constructs or subjective in nature

According to Weber ideal types are mental constructs which are ideal in logical terms. Which means they state a logical extreme.  They depend on our capacity for imagination. For example we have ideal types for democracy, perfect health etc.

2. They do not exactly correspond to reality

Ideal types are constructed in such a way that they are kept at distance from real world. Although they are constructed from actual facts. But still they do not correspond to the actual facts in each and every aspect. They are created to understand reality and they themselves do not actually exist.

3. Theoretical Tools

Ideal types are mental constructs and function as theoretical tools to understand reality.  Its function is to compare with empirical reality in order to know its divergences or similarities.

4. Signifies “pure” or “abstract” types

Weber stated that ideal types have no connection with Value-judgements. It has nothing to do with any type of perfection than a purely logical one. Hence it is a methodological device, that is all. It is not ideal ethically good or right.

5. Ideal types are not hypotheses

They are not hypotheses. Hence there is no question of proving or disproving them. Also establishing general laws does not arise here. Weber in his studies in the Sociology of Religion examined the relationship between religious ethics in various societies and elements of economic development. But it was not to establish general laws. It was essentially to check the validity of his ideal type of relationship between the Protestant Ethic and industrial Capitalism of Western Europe.

6. One sided model

It deliberately emphasises those imputations thought thought to be worth postulating and testing. Hence, it is purely selective and of nature of experiment.

7. They are not rigid but are subject to change

Ideal types are abstract in nature and reside in our imagination. They are changeable from time to time. Social thinking and environment affects them.  Hence they cannot be permanent.

Purpose of Ideal Types

According to Weber, concept of ideal types serves the following purposes.

a) It is used to make judgements whether the type of society referred to in concrete reality actually exist.  And to what extent its characteristics can be made clear and understandable.

b) It is an indispensable tool for comparative analysis of different societies. It is to understand their social and historical characteristics and they change over time.

c) As ideal type is not a description of reality.  Thus it is used to assist in reducing ambiguity about empirical reality by providing the means to  promote adequate descriptions of it.

d) Ideal type leads to the formation of new concepts about social and economic organisations of societies by historical comparisons of given social types that are within the conceptual boundaries of history and reality.

Criticism of Ideal Types

Although scholars appreciate Weber’s concept of ideal types very well. But still it is not free from criticism.

1. Though the ideal type is a “mental construct” and many times confused with an “actual reality”  itself.

2. Concept of ideal types is very complex. Only an expert sociologist can understand and make use of it efficiently.

3. Though ideal types are very significant in study of social sciences but all types of social analysis cannot be done on its basis.

4. There are arguments that “ideal type analysis are utterly inappropriate to sociological analysis. As it involves the meaningful understanding of specific cases and not the development of general concepts and general theories”.

5. According  to Weber “ideal types are not models to be tested”. However other sociologist treat them as testable models of the real world. Further confusion may arise since Weber himself often implicitly used ideal types as testable models.

Finally, it can be said that if above deficiencies of concept of ideal types are avoided, then ideal types can become an extremely useful instrument to confront reality.


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